Polly Doesn't Want a Cracker

It's better to drink your way through Parrot Jungle than eat

Three ways to draw unwelcome attention to yourself at Parrot Jungle: Climb the monkey tower, yelling, "I am king of the primate world!" Teach the parrots to squawk, "Come here, little girl. Want some candy?" or simply walk around the exhibits with a young child firmly clasped in one hand and an Amstel Lite secure in the other.

Indeed, nothing furthers suspicion of parental contravention more than the sight of a caretaker drinking an alcoholic beverage at a so-called family entertainment venue. After a full day of viewing reptiles and birds ranging from crocodiles to cranes, some might be willing to risk the hostility, though. For one thing, along with Budweiser, the less-filling-but-immensely-refreshing beer is for sale at the many vending tables scattered throughout the park. For another, it's necessary to wash the taste of the Lakeside Café's wine from your mouth.

Overlooking a custom-dug pond stocked with greedy koi and neighboring flatlands filled with flamingos, the Lakeside Café is the park's primary watering hole. Everyone from visitors to the employees who just finished putting the liger (a cross between a lion and a tiger, and yes, it is a humongous beast) through its paces seems to eventually wind up there. The attraction is obvious: The indoor and outdoor tables are numerous and kept clean by a constantly roving staff; the atmosphere is casual; bathrooms and air conditioning are human creature comforts; and a more-extensive-than-anticipated menu takes into account Miami's multi-influenced culture, offering items that range from conch fritters to Cuban sandwiches, pasta of the day to papas rellenas.

The café also has its detractions, however. To enter, you have to pass through not one but two gift shops, a blatant commercialism that turns hungry or tired children into frenzied, souvenir-crossed consumers. Once in the restaurant, which is self-service, you have to slowly move through the single-file line, making snap decisions, ordering hot items from the counter workers and picking up salads, sandwiches, desserts, and drinks from various refrigerators and compartments positioned on either side. Juggling kids, cafeteria trays, and cash -- let alone carriages, which you have to leave at a table or outside the line -- is no easy task.

Nor is getting the food down a picky child. A gray hot dog and a rubbery burger topped with unmelted cheese are no better options than you can get at the stands in the park proper. Chicken tenders and French fries, though, are decent choices, crisp and nongreasy.

More adventurous kids and their folks can fare better on freshly made salad platters or prewrapped sandwiches; the chef salad is a generous assortment of greens, eggs, tomatoes, and chopped deli meats, and tuna or chicken salad wraps contain more protein and less mayonnaise than you might expect. Another plus is that hot dishes such as macaroni and cheese or ropa viejacan be viewed, so it's simple to see if you or your offspring might like it.

A serious minus is the confusion -- if you pick up a bowl of the garlicky and too-cold artichoke-spinach dip at the outset, for instance, where are you supposed to get the tortilla chips that accompany it? The cashier came in handy in this case, noting the missing components and fetching them. Another negative: By the time you arrive at the cashier, you've also run the gamut of Jell-O, pudding, cookies, ice cream, and a zillion other sweet distractions. Saying "no" a few hundred times is sure to spark your thirst, which is where the wine comes in. But apparently so few people know you can order vino here that open bottles sit around for a long time, so if you're desperate for the mild sedation be prepared for off flavors. Or simply stick with the censorious beer. It certainly makes feeding baby bottles filled with fruit punch to the fat goats in the petting zoo a whole lot easier to bear. www.parrotjungle.com

 
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